The Villasur expedition of 1720 was a Spanish military expedition intended to check the growing New France's influence on the Great Plains of central North America. Led by Lieutenant-General Pedro de Villasur, the expedition was attacked in present-day Nebraska by a Pawnee and Otoe force. Forty-six of the Spaniards and their Indian allies were killed. The survivors retreated to their base in New Mexico.
In the first part of the 18th century, French explorers and fur traders began to enter the plains west of the Missouri River. In 1714, Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont became the first European known to have reached the mouth of the Platte River; other French traders may have visited the area and lived among the Indians. Spain, which had claimed ownership of the Great Plains since the Coronado expedition of the 16th century, worried about the expansion of French influence in the region. In 1718, the War of the Quadruple Alliance broke out between France and Spain.
The governor of the Spanish colony of Nuevo México, based in Santa Fe, directed Villasur to capture French traders on the plains. Spanish authorities hoped to gather intelligence about French ambitions in the region. Villasur, who had no experience with Indians, left Santa Fe on June 16, 1720, leading an expedition that included about 40 Cuera[b] soldiers of a mounted frontier corps, 60–70 Pueblo allies, a priest, a Spanish trader, and approximately 12 Apache guides, who were tribal enemies of the Pawnee. Jose Naranjo, scout leader and explorer, was of African-Hopi parentage. A war captain for the Spanish Indian auxiliaries, Naranjo, by 1720, may have previously reached the South Platte River area.
The expedition made its way northeast through present-day Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. In August, they made contact with the Pawnee and Otoe along the Platte and Loup rivers. Using Francisco Sistaca, a Pawnee held as a slave (and renamed) by the Spanish, Villasur made several attempts to negotiate with Indians in the area. On August 13, Sistaca disappeared from camp. Nervous about the possibility of attack and the increasing number and belligerence of the Pawnee and Otoe, Villasur camped that night just south of the Loup-Platte confluence, near what is now Columbus, Nebraska.[c]
The Pawnees and Otoes attacked at dawn on August 14, shooting heavy musketry fire and flights of arrows, then charging into combat clad only in paint, headbands, moccasins and short leggings. Some survivors reported that Frenchmen had been among the attackers, and men in European dress are shown in a surviving painting of the battle. The Spanish were mostly asleep at this hour; possibly Sistaca had told the Pawnees the best time to attack. In a brief battle, they killed 36 Spaniards, including Villasur and Naranjo, 10 Pueblo scouts, and Jean L'Archevêque, a Frenchman who had been brought as an interpreter on the understanding that the French were gaining influence on the plains. The Pueblo allies were encamped nearby, but separately from the Spanish and were not the first targets of the attack. The few "leather soldiers" who escaped were horse-holders, who were able to break loose while their comrades attempted to form a defensive cluster.
The Spanish and Pueblo survivors returned to Santa Fe on September 6. The expedition had journeyed farther to the north and east than any other Spanish military expedition, and its defeat marked the end of Spanish influence on the central Great Plains. The governors of New Mexico inquired into and apportioned blame for the disaster over the next seven years. The French in Illinois were elated to learn of the battle in October, but subsequent French expeditions did not succeed in establishing French trade and influence in the area.
- Three buffalo hide paintings depicting the battle were sent by the Jesuit missionary Philipp Segesser to his brother in Switzerland in 1758. They were identified and retrieved many years later.
- So called from the protective leather clothing that Spanish frontier troops wore.
- The battle site was once claimed to have been near the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte rivers in western Nebraska.
- "Villasur Sent to Nebraska: Recording the Massacre", Nebraska Studies, accessed August 24, 2011. Note: The image features Naranjo, among others.
- Chávez, Thomas E. (January 1, 1990). "The Segesser Hide Paintings: History, Discovery". Great Plains Quarterly. University of Nebraska – Lincoln: 96. Retrieved December 18, 2013.
- Norall, Frank (1988), Bourgmont, Explorer of the Missouri, 1698–1725, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 24–27.
- "Villasur Sent to Nebraska: Recording the Massacre", Nebraska Studies, accessed August 24, 2011
- Chartrand, Rene (2011). The Spanish Army in North America. Osprey Publishing. p. 11. ISBN 9781849085977.
- Alfred Thomas, After Coronado: Spanish Exploration Northeast of New Mexico, 1696–1727; Documents from the Archives of Spain Mexico and New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935, third printing 1969) , pp. 156, 275n118.
- "Columbus or North Platte? Site of Spanish Massacre", Nebraska History and Record of Pioneer Days, 7 (3), 1924
- The Pawnee Indians. George E. Hyde 1951. New edition in The Civilization of the American Indian Series, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1974. ISBN 0806120940, pp. 75–76
- de Pastino, Blake (March 17, 2014). "First Evidence Found of Storied Battle That Stopped Spain's Eastward Expansion". Western Digs. Archived from the original on March 17, 2014. Retrieved March 23, 2014.
- Blake, Robert Bruce, Jean L'Archevêque, Handbook of Texas, retrieved February 7, 2008
- "The Villasur Expedition: The Battle", Nebraska Studies, accessed August 24, 2011